The largest open-air market in Somalia, Bakara, in the capital Mogadishu, could close due to insecurity and continued restrictions on the movement of people by government security forces, warn local sources.
"All the signs point to a total closure of Bakara market," Ali Muhammad Siad, the chairman of the market's traders, told IRIN on 18 July.
A local businessman warned that such a closure would affect thousands of people’s livelihoods.
According to a civil society source, the violence in the capital in general and the market in particular had led to increases of between 50 and 100 percent in the prices of basic necessities, such as transport, water, food and non-food items.
Ethiopian-backed government forces have been searching the market for weapons for the past two weeks, according to a local journalist, who declined to be named. The government has accused insurgents of using the market as a hiding place.
"We know that is where they hide, plan and execute their attacks," said Abdi Haji Gobdon, the government spokesman.
Gobdon said the government would not allow Bakara market to become a haven for criminal activity. "We are urging the traders to cooperate with the security forces to end the mayhem there," he added.
Bakara serves as a wholesale market, supplying others in the city and the rest of country. It is also where the foreign exchange rates are decided in the absence of a central bank, according to a businessman. "It is where the exchange rate of the dollar is made for the entire country and where wholesalers send their goods to other markets in the city and outside."
Siad blamed both the government forces and the insurgents for the problems facing Bakara market. "We have been under siege for 15 days, with business coming to a standstill," he said. "It is now a military zone and no longer a market."
He said ordinary people could not gain access to the market as government forces had blocked all entry points. He said most major businesses had already left and those remaining were trying to find a way to leave.
If the situation did not improve soon, and businesses continued to move out, "there will be no Bakara market left".
The civil society source said many people who had returned to the capital from camps for the internally displaced were once again in the camps and unable to get help due to insecurity.
"It is becoming impossible for local agencies to operate, much less international ones," she said. "How can we help anyone if we cannot get to them?"
The UN World Food Programme said that there had been no general food distribution "in and around Mogadishu since 25 June" when at least five people were killed when security forces opened fire at a crowd waiting for food aid in the city.
"We are waiting for adequate security to be provided before distributions can resume," WFP spokesman Peter Smerdon told IRIN. "We hope it will be soon," he added.
However, Gobdon dismissed what he called "the doomsday scenario" facing Bakara market. He said the government had no intention of closing the market, urging patience, and said security operations would soon come to an end and the market would continue to operate safely.
Meanwhile, at least five people - including a police officer - were killed in Bakara on 18 July, after a grenade was thrown at security forces, a local journalist said.